Katherine Parr – The Sixth Wife by Alison Weir
Katharine Parr married Henry VIII in 1543, and was the wife that survived him. In many ways that has been the only thing known about a woman who had arguably the best outcome in the marriage stakes, but that would be to ignore so much about the woman she was before, how she coped during their marriage, and what happened when the increasingly difficult king died. This book recounts, with the usual research which the author has always been committed to, the facts, but also so much more. Katharine’s early life, her unusually advanced education for a woman of her time, and basically her calm exterior throughout is brought to life in this novel. Told from her viewpoint, there are the revelations of the royal and court life that she would have found out, and probably been surprised about, the four husbands she had married in her relatively short life, and her relationships with other people. It is full of the colour of the dresses she wore, the palaces and places where she lived and visited, and the complex political and religious conditions in which she lived. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this classic historical novel.
Katharine is shown as a capable person from childhood. Her father died in a plague that had sent the King and his entourage fleeing from London – the fact that Henry was already on the throne from her before her birth and earliest memories is somehow remarkable. It seems she had a capable, educated and devout mother, whose decision to send her to family together with her siblings was a wise one, as her own family were to be vital supports throughout her life, even as many of her actions were to benefit them. She received the sort of classical education that boys would normally benefit from, and throughout her life she was able to maintain a genuine interest in theological matters as well as manage households when necessary. An arranged marriage when she was sixteen to Edward, the son and heir of Sir Thomas Burgh of Gainsborough looked to be an advantageous one, but meant that she had to leave her much loved childhood home. It was a difficult and brief marriage according to Weir, her father in law being brutal and her young husband having a difficult secret. Disappointed in her marriage and at her husband’s early death, she took time to recover before marrying a widower with older children. His role in the royal court and unrest in the north of England place Katherine in fear of losing everything one more than one occasion. Throughout her second marriage she managed well with her household, her step children and the challenges of life with an affectionate man. It was only as he became ill that she met a man she could truly love, the charismatic Thomas Seymour. She genuinely tried to disguise the passion she felt which seemed to be more than returned, as she nursed her dying husband John, Lord Latimer. In the meantime she happened to meet the king, now an older man, broken down as he saw it by his sad marital experiences, most recently by the teenage Katheryn Howard. While she would love to marry Thomas, it is deemed more expedient to marry a king who had chosen to condemn at least two of his previous wives to death. Her own religious beliefs suddenly become a dangerous part of her life, and may well endanger her very life.
This is a book where the life of a woman in dangerous times is looked at in intense detail. Katharine is shown as an intelligent woman who chose to do her duty by her family rather than her own inclinations, and was capable enough to survive many challenges in all four of her marriages. Weir has written a fictionalised biography that offers so much depth to a life which is often just labelled “Survived”. Katharine had a difficult life with the men who found affection for her, and it is perhaps a tragedy that her own love was denied to her for so long, then proved to be difficult. This is probably a definitive fictional biography of a woman of great significance in many ways in the lives of Henry’s heirs, who managed a difficult balance of faith and self preservation during her third and most famous marriage, and took delight in some of the aspects of wealthy family lives.